The United States is buying up nerds. That was the humorous spin The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart put on a recent front-page splash in the New York Times that Miami-born and Brooklyn-raised Fabiano Caruana was set to return from Italy to play for the country of his birth. And he now joins Hikaru Nakamura and Wesley So to overnight suddenly make the US once again a potential force in world chess.
And this threat is no exaggeration, because recently, Caruana and Nakamura both took the plaudits and the two qualifying spots from the Fide Grand Prix for the 2016 Candidates tournament, which will ultimately decide Magnus Carlsen’s next title challenger. Many are speculating there could well be a serious prospect of the first American since Bobby Fischer now challenging for the world crown.
All eyes have centred on Caruana being the likeliest of the two to be that challenger - but it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Nakamura himself has had a stellar year, playing arguably the best chess of his career. Many say he’s been spurred on by suddenly finding he could well be overshadowed by Caruana’s arrival. Therefore any meeting of these two rivals is particularly of interest, such as in round three of the 3rd Norway Chess Tournament in Stavanger.
And just when everyone was expecting their encounter to be a certain draw, for some inexplicable reason, Caruana uncharacteristically pressed the self-destruct button to gift the US champion a free point - and that point not only allowed Nakamura through to share the joint lead with Veseline Topalov on 2.5/3, it also saw him supplanting Caruana as the new world No.2 on the unofficial live ratings.
So much for the challengers for Carlsen’s title, what of the World Champion himself: Could he make a fighting comeback after his horrific start of 0/2? Well, it seems not - Carlsen yet again was found to be miss-firing, and continues to be the "cellar-dweller" after he missed a sure-fire win against Anish Giri. In today’s diagram, Carlsen played 38.Qe4? but after 38...Rf8 39.Nxe5 dxe5 40.Rg3 Rxd5 41.Qb1 Qxb1 42.Bxb1+ he eventually worked his way to an ending where he had three connected passed pawns against Giri’s lone knight, that ended in a draw in 76 moves with just two bare kings left on the board. However, what Carlsen missed from the diagram was 38.Bf7+!! Kxf7 39.Qe4 Kg7 40.Qf5 winning, as Black can't re-route his pieces in time to save his exposed king.
Nakamura 1-0 Caruana
Anand draw Grischuk
Vachier-Lagrave 0-1 Topalov
Aronian draw Hammer
Carlsen draw Giri
Round 3 standings: 1-2. Hikaru Nakamura (USA), Veselin Topalov (Bulgaria) 2.5/3; 3. Anish Giri (Netherlands) 2; 4-6. Viswanathan Anand (India), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Fabiano Caruana (Italy/USA) 1.5; 7-9. Alexander Grischuk (Russia), Jon Ludvig Hammer (Norway), Levon Aronian (Armenia) 1; 10. Magnus Carlsen (Norway) 0.5.
Hikaru Nakamura - Fabiano Caruana
3rd Norway Chess 2015, (3)
1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 c5 3.Nc3 Nc6 4.g3 d5 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.Bg2 g6 7.0-0 Bg7 8.Nxd5 Qxd5 9.d3 0-0 10.Be3 A well-known line in the English Opening: White's angling to play Nd4 to hit the queen and the knight on c6 - and not only that, he's on c5 as well. It all looks dangerous for Black - but with correct play, invariably this line usually peters out to a draw. And careful and correct play is usually Caruana's trademark, along with his reputation of being one of the best prepared players on the elite circuit. 10...Bd7 More often or not seen played here, is lines such as 10...Bxb2 11.Rb1 Bf6! 12.Qa4 (Also there's 12.Nd4 Qxa2 13.Nxc6 bxc6 14.Bxc6 Bh3! 15.Bxa8 Rxa8! 16.Re1 Bc3 and despite the material about to become equal, Black can claim a small advantage of sorts as he has the passed a-pawn.) 12...Qd6 13.Rfc1 b6 14.d4 Nxd4 15.Nxd4 cxd4 16.Bf4 Bd7! 17.Qa6 and again, an equal position arises. 11.Nd4 Qd6 12.Nxc6 Bxc6 13.Bxc6 Qxc6 14.Rc1 Qa6 15.Qb3 b6 16.Rc4 Nakamura gets to activate his rooks first; but Caruana should have no problems nullifying this. 16...Rfd8 17.Rfc1 Rd7 18.a3 Rad8 19.Rf4 Hoping to entice the very minor concession of 19...e6 offering White a little more scope on the dark-squares - but Caruana doesn't even allow this. 19...Bf6 20.h4 Qb7 21.Rc2 Qb8 There's really nothing in this game - and if the Sofia & Corsica Rules hadn't been in force (where players cannot directly offer each other a draw) I would have expected them to be shaking hands around 30 moves or so. But as it is, the rules state one side has to make the offer through the arbiter, and he can consult a group of his experts onsite and decline it. This, as Nakamura admitted after the game, proved to be in his favour, as he said otherwise he definitely would have offered Caruana a draw somewhere around the 30 move mark. 22.Rf3 Rd5 23.Bg5 Qd6 24.Bxf6 exf6 25.Qa4 a5 26.Qf4 f5 27.Qxd6 R8xd6 28.Rf4 Rd4 Nakamura thought this offered him a glimmer of hope. He said that if the doubled rooks had stayed on the board, then it was unlikely he could ever win. All very well, but even with the exchange of a set of rooks, I still can't see it being anything other than a draw. 29.Rxd4 Rxd4 30.Kg2 Kg7 31.Rc3 Kf6 32.e3 Rd6 33.Kf3 Ke5 34.a4 Kd5 35.Ke2 Rd7 36.Kd2 h6 37.Rc1 Kc6 38.Kc3 b5?! I don't know what was going through Caruana's mind here, and especially with his crazy follow-up on move 40. 38...Kd5 looked like the sure draw: how does White get a breakthrough? 39.axb5+ Kxb5 40.b3 g5?? This is incomprehensible and arguably the worst move Caruana has ever played since he became an elite star - it breaks all the known rules in a rook and pawn ending, by volunteering his opponent access to the only open file and to attack all of his weak pawns. However, it is not uncommon for a player to make a howler just before the time control - but even here, Caruana had no excuses of time pressure, as he had over 20 minutes to make his final move. Nakamura probably couldn't believe his luck here, as he's basically gifted a free point. 41.hxg5 hxg5 42.Rh1! Exactly! Nakamura is going to eat up all those pawns like a game of Pac-man. 42...Ra7 43.Rh7 f4 44.gxf4 gxf4 45.e4 Black's pawns are now a truly sorry sight, and Nakamura's technique is flawless as he takes a very unexpected win. 45...a4 46.bxa4+ Rxa4 47.Rxf7 Ra3+ 48.Kd2 Ra2+ 49.Ke1 Ra3 50.Ke2 Ra2+ 51.Kf3 Rd2 52.Rd7 Kc6 53.Rd5 Kb6 54.e5 Kc6 55.Rd8 Kc7 56.Rd6 1-0